Lower IQ, adult obesity and 5% of autism cases are all linked to exposure to endocrine disruptors found in food containers, plastics, furniture, toys, carpeting and cosmetics, says new expert study
Scientists recommend against pregnant women and children using plastic containers for food, especially in the microwave due to endocrine disruptors.
Europe is experiencing an explosion in health costs caused by endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that is comparable to the cost of lead and mercury poisoning, according to the most comprehensive study of the subject yet published.
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with the human hormone system, and can be found in food containers, plastics, furniture, toys, carpeting and cosmetics.
The new series of reports by 18 of the world’s foremost experts on endocrine science pegs the health costs of exposure to them at between €157bn-€270bn (£113bn-£195bn), or at least 1.23% of the continent’s GDP.
“The shocking thing is that the major component of that cost is related to the loss of brain function in the next generation,” one of the report’s authors, Professor Philippe Grandjean of Harvard University, told the Guardian.
“Our brains need particular hormones to develop normally – the thyroid hormone and sex hormones like testosterone and oestrogen. They’re very important in pregnancy and a child can very well be mentally retarded because of a lack of iodine and the thyroid hormone caused by chemical exposure.”
After IQ loss, adult obesity linked to exposure to phthalates, a group of chemicals used in plastics, was the second largest part of the overall cost, with an estimated price tag of €15.6bn a year, according to the paper, which was published on Thursday in the Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.
The study attributes at least 5% of European autism cases to EDC exposure, but Grandjean said the figure likely under-estimated the linkage, because of difficulties in measuring foetal exposure to chemicals after a child had been born.
“I would recommend that pregnant women and children eat organic fruits and vegetables and avoid using plastic containers and canned food, especially in the microwave, because containers are usually treated on the inside with substances and compounds that can leak into the tomato soup and may act as endocrine disruptors,” he said.
Endocrine disruptors have long been thought damaging to male reproductive health. The new study establishes “probable causation” between endocrine exposure and a range of illnesses including autism, infertility, obesity, diabetes, and cryptorchidism.
To gauge the probability that specific illnesses had been caused by industrial chemicals, the authors adapted the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s ‘weight of evidence’ model, and an epidemiology model used by the World Health Organisation, for the paper.
It found a 70%-100% likelihood that IQ loss and intellectual disability were caused by exposure to organophosphates used in herbicides and insecticides, and to Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) found in flame retardants. The odds of attention deficit disorder being caused by exposure to multiple EDCs was put lower, at between 20-69%.
For costing the results of such conditions, the research team factored in hospital stays, physician services, nursing home care and other medical fees, as well as indirect costs such as lost worker productivity, early death and disability.
Past research has estimated the European health costs of intellectual disability caused by lead and mercury poisoning at €69bn. “Our calculated costs associated with several industrial chemicals are of the same order of magnitude,” the study said.
“These studies tell a frightening and expensive story equivalent to a €7,500 cost for every man, woman and child in the EU every year,” said Genon Jensen, the director of the Health and Environment Alliance. “Some of these chemicals are no longer allowed on the market but others are still widely used. The European commission should act now in a robust and systematic manner to reduce people’s exposure.”
The European commission has faced criticism from environmentalists for delaying its planned strategies to identify and address the health effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals, amid lobbying from the pesticides and chemical industries.
Last month, the Guardian reported allegations that a key EU document had been “suppressed” because it would have introduced criteria that could have led to the banning of 31 pesticides, worth billions of euros.
“We are also negatively impacted by the delay,” Jean-Charles Bocquet, the director of the European Crop Protection Agency said then. “But at the same time we understand that if we want to have a science-based approach, sometimes we have to delay.”
Grandjean called for the commission to publish its criteria for identifying EDCs so that testing for their safety and control could begin. “We have a serious need for prevention here and the commission has the power to get this started,” he said. We need to do it very, very soon.”